The UK is packed with historical hotels, from striking manor houses to exquisite country houses. Here are six superb examples I've been fortunate enough to stay in.
6. Down Hall Hotel & Spa
Fun Fact: Series 11 (2020) of The Great British Bake Off was filmed at Down Hall, with the cast and crew quarantining together in a bubble for the six weeks of filming.
Down Hall is in Hatfield Heath, near Bishop’s Stortford on the Hertfordshire and Essex border. The exterior of the 1322 Italianate mansion is quite stunning and the interior is equally as impressive, – warm and homely, yet grand at the same time. It’s had an interesting history, too, with time as a sanatorium for wounded soldiers during the First World War and then as Downham School from 1932 to 1967. The 110-acre estate now features manicured gardens, with plenty of space for croquet or a game of Giant Chess and 98 rooms, as well as the Eden Spa, offering a full complement of spa services.
There’s a range of rooms at Down Hall, as you would expect of a hotel this size, all individually designed and rather elegant. I stayed in a Deluxe room in the historic Mansion House. The spacious room featured high ceilings, a soft, natural colour palette, a carved wooden headboard and large picture windows looking over a fountain on the rear lawn, which stretches to woodland.
The Grill Room restaurant serves modern English cuisine including fresh ingredients from the Down Hall vegetable garden. Expect dishes like Cornish mackerel with wasabi yoghurt topped with strawberries and baby beetroot; goats’ cheese mousse paired with Jerusalem artichoke, macadamia and slices of king oyster mushroom; slow-cooked pork belly, served with mash, summer cabbage, carrot puree and crackling; and the best panna cotta I’ve ever tasted: buttermilk panna cotta, with chunks of rhubarb from the garden.
For something a bit different, visit the House on the Hill Toy Museum. It’s apparently the world’s largest toy museum, with over 70,000 toys on display, ranging from humble homemade toys through farm toys, Barbies, teddy bears and coin operated amusement machines to technology from the 1970s and 1980s.
Fun Fact: Peels restaurant at Hampton Manor has been awarded a Michelin star and not one, two or three, but four AA rosettes.
Hampton Manor is something of a surprise. Sitting in countryside near Hampton-in-Arden it’s roughly halfway between Birmingham and Coventry. It’s been around a long time in one form or another, and passed through some illustrious hands in its time – from knights to lords (Lord Robert de Ardene) and prime ministers (Sir Robert Peel). It was Sir Robert Peel’s son, Frederick Peel, who commissioned the building of the current Manor House. In 1855, William Eden Nesfield designed the Neo-Tudor Gothic building, but there were some later architectural additions, including an Arts and Crafts clock tower and a walled garden with a Jacobean archway. It all adds up to a wonderfully eclectic structure.
The current owners have been at the helm since 2008 and they’ve added their own flair, with a multi-million-pound renovation completed in 2019 that added a contemporary twist to all that history. The 15 individually designed rooms are oh-so-chic, each named after a character with significant involvement in the Manor and grounds. In the George Fentham room, charcoal grey meets fuchsia pink, with a zebra-striped coffee table and an oversized black circular light shade that matches the plush bedhead. Throws are draped artfully across chairs that gently rock, the bookshelf is stacked with literary works, and delicious home-baked chocolate chip cookies await.
The tasting menu at Peels restaurant is as exceptional as the rooms. Do splurge. Hampton Manor takes food to the next level. Delicacies may include something like sea trout two ways – cured and as smoked trout mousse, with crème fraiche, dill, pickle and cucumber or nitro-frozen chocolate mousse and sherry caramel with cookie crumble, chocolate custard, roasted hazlenuts and hazelnut ice-cream.
Don't leave the manor. Instead, spend your time exploring the 45-acre woodland and then treat yourself to dinner in the private dining room. This secluded space has a window into the kitchen, so you can watch the chefs in action. It's as good as live theatre.
Fun Fact: In 2010, Hipping featured in the BBC’s foodie comedy The Trip, which follows Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as they embark on a gastronomic journey across the North of England.
Hipping Hall in Lancashire marries a collection of grade II-listed buildings dating back to the 15th century. The luxury accommodation is split into three different areas: the main house, the cottage and the more recently completed stable rooms. Hipping Hall takes its name from the Hipping, or stepping, stones that cross Broken Beck, a little stream that runs through the grounds. These stones once allowed travellers to cross the road that was an important artery between the west coast of England and the cities of Leeds and York. An enterprising blacksmith set up shop on land he purchased from Hipping and trade boomed. By 1668 he owned 12 acres of land and Hipping Hall.
Naturally, there have been a few updates in the hotel’s history, the most recent in 2017, which have turned the rooms into comfortable, contemporary spaces while maintaining the historical features. The pick of the lot is perhaps the Tatham Suite in the loft space of the main house, which features a cosy lounge, original oak ship’s beams and views over the gardens – the free-standing bath in the ensuite is impressive, too.
While we’re on the topic of impressing, this is something Head Chef Oli Martin sets out to do – and he delivers. The tasting menu during my visit included canapés in the lounge and an amuse bouche of soft-shelled crab with carrot catsup, followed by seven exquisite courses paired with wines. Dishes ranged from avocado mousse with tomato granita and caviar to cucumber gazpacho, arctic char and chilled flowers and a meadowsweet parfait with blueberry and honeycomb. The tasting menu changes regularly, but it’s consistently delectable.
The Ingleton Waterfalls Walk is nearby. The circular trail passes multiple falls as it wends through ancient oak woodland and typical Yorkshire Dales scenery, taking around 2.5 hours to complete. There is an entry cost, with the fees going towards trail upkeep.
Fun Fact: There is an established badger sett on the island and in the evenings, Bertie and his badger buddies come to visit the front steps of the main house for milk and bread.
The Isle of Eriska is a small, private island on Scotland’s west coast with gorgeous views overlooking Loch Linnhe and the dramatic Morvern mountains beyond. It’s only a three-hour train trip from Glasgow, but it feels like another world. The main hotel building lies close to the centre of the 300-acre island and has been the focal point since 1884, although Eriska’s history dates back further than this – the recognition of this isle as a sanctuary stems from the earliest written title deeds, back in the 15th and 16th centuries. The property is blanketed in history, but more importantly, it’s warm and welcoming, with a range of public rooms including a piano room, drawing room and library with an art deco fireplace adorned with risqué, figurines.
There’s all manner of accommodation here. There are 16 bedrooms in the main house, five spa suites in the gardens with private hot tubs, two two-bedroom garden cottages and six hilltop reserves, as the name suggests, on the hilltop overlooking Loch Linnhe, again with private hot tub and balconies. In addition, Arnott’s House is a self-catering option with three bedrooms, a short drive or longer walk from the hotel.
The Michelin-starred food is superb. Isle of Gigha halibut, Glen Coc mussels and Mull cheddar point to the clear focus on Scottish produce. Highlights include Cullen Skink, a thick Scottish soup traditionally made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions – this version contains a small island of parsley root, crispy chicken skin, braised onion and lumpfish roe – and Scotch beef fillet tartare, which is draped around a kohlrabi cup filled with herbs and smoked mayonnaise.
On a ramble around the island, you can take in the partly submerged Crannog, the remains of a fortified dwelling from the Bronze Age, barely distinguishable from rubble and Otter Point, so named for the playful critters often spotted here (and if you don't spot one, look for the statue).
Fun Fact: Lainston House has a resident falconer and the collection of birds, including hawks, owls and Kevin the turkey vulture, live near the Kitchen Garden.
Lainston House is a charming 17th-century country house in the Hampshire countryside,a few miles from Winchester. It is part of the Exclusive Hotels Collection, surrounded by plenty of fresh air and countryside, but not so remote that you can't pop to a larger conurbation. Winchester has plenty of highlights, but at the same time, Lainston House’s grounds stretch out over 63 acres, so there’s much to explore here. It’s worth donning a pair of the Union Jack wellies kept by the open fireplace and heading outside for a stroll around the grounds. There’s plenty to see – the crumbling St Peter’s Chapel just to the side of the main building, which dates from the 12th or 13th century; the Sundial Garden and Kitchen Garden; the octagonal dovecote and the Well House, now a cooking school; and the croquet lawn and tennis courts.
Each of the rooms at Lainston House are individually styled and designed – no two are the same. I stayed in the Delft room, named for the Dutch blue and white tiles that feature throughout. Along with the tiles, a row of large windows look out onto Lime Tree Avenue, a grassed area lined with Linden trees that stretches for three-quarters of a mile. The cushioned window seats invite contemplation.
When a hotel has a kitchen garden, you know you’re going to eat well. The Avenue restaurants has three rosettes and a menu packed with temptations, so the eight-course tasting menu is the way to go. Every course is exceptional, a work of art in its own right, featuring dishes like Buffalo Burrata with beetroot, girolles, fennel pickles and a dusting of bacon and raw scallop and oyster with lychee, vodka and seaweed. Salmon, guinea fowl, foie gras, feta and truffle all appear in explosive taste combinations.
Winchester is a lovely place to wander, with the highlight being Winchester Cathedral and the Great Hall. This is home to a medieval replica of King Arthur’s legendary Round Table, which was decorated by Henry VIII and is mounted on the cathedral wall.
Fun Fact: In the 1970s, Middlethorpe was home to an upmarket nightclub called Brummels.
On the outskirts of York, Middlethorpe Hall & Spa is one of only three National Trust historic house hotels. It is a William III country house, influenced indirectly by the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren, set in 20 acres of beautiful gardens and parkland. Built in 1699, it was once the home of diarist, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She probably didn’t have a spa housed in an outbuilding, though. I suspect that’s a more recent addition.
Middlethorpe Hall comprises 29 guest rooms and suites, spread across the main house and Courtyard. The hotel is decorated in the manner of the 18th Century, furnished with antiques and fine paintings and feels very much painted with a National Trust paint pot. It’s delightful, every so slightly old-fashioned, and most decidedly elegant. Expect crisp white tablecloths in the two dining rooms that overlook the lovely gardens, floral-draped four-poster beds, an elegant lounge and impeccable service.
The 2 AA Rosette-worthy food is also a highlight. The chefs work closely with local suppliers and the hotel's gardening team to ensure the menu is fresh and seasonal, featuring the best of what Britain has to offer. Dishes like hand-dived scallops with maple-glazed belly of pork, crispy potato hash and satay sauce and Yorkshire Rhubarb with poached rhubarb, white chocolate and pistachio ice-cream topped with a white chocolate twill have been known to grace the menu.
Take a stroll into York, two miles away, and pick up a map from the Tourist Information Centre for the Cat Trail - this will take you around the highlights of York (including York Minster) as you spot these feline features scattered across the city centre.